This is Quick Sear, a new column where Eater LA editors explore a pertinent topic in the city’s food scene with keen observations and earned takes.
Eating streetside tacos is a proud Los Angeles tradition. There’s nothing more iconic than digging into a paper plate piled high with carne asada or al pastor tacos garnished with fresh salsas, limes, and radishes while standing on a curb (or sitting at a makeshift table). But I recently noticed something has been amiss: LA’s tacos are shrinking.
As LA restaurant editors and reporters, eating street tacos is a basic job requirement, so we notice when things are different or seemingly inconsistent. Upon further inspection, it’s not just my eyes: LA’s tacos really look like they’re smaller. Just ask my stomach, because two tacos are no longer enough to make a complete meal.
On a recent visit to three of LA’s most popular taco spots: El Chato in Mid-Wilshire, Avenue 26 Tacos in Downtown, and Tacos Tamix in Pico-Union, I found winding lines, eager diners, and yes, much smaller tacos. In 2023, my typical taco stand order has now increased from two to four, and sometimes five.
Just to be clear, there is no standard size for tortillas. The diameter can range from four to six inches and finishing a taco at these stands used to take me four bites. In 2023, I can make my way through some of these tacos in two bites. (Note: This observation is based on visits to multiple taco spots in Los Angeles, but doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening at all of them.)
The matter of taco shrinkage is a complicated subject to broach. I’m not knocking taco trucks for trying their hardest to stay in business by reducing portion size during an incredibly difficult time in the restaurant industry. Operating a food business in Los Angeles is hard, whether a small operator on a street corner or a big restaurant with investors, many of which have permanently closed over the last few months. The goal of this piece isn’t to make things more difficult for taco stands or any food business. Every restaurant, even before the pandemic has to pivot to keep up with costs, market trends, and demands. In June 2022, consumer prices were up by 9.1 percent nationally, the highest it’s been in 40 years.
Every city in the country is different. In Austin, taco prices are up due to several factors, including the war in Ukraine, inflation, and consumer demand. However, some LA operators like Villas Tacos in Highland Park and Evil Cooks in East LA told Eater that the price of beef has remained steady, though pork prices are markedly higher. But these operators have barely increased their prices.
So why are tacos getting smaller? Are street taco operators fearful of losing customers if taco prices increase? Do diners expect street tacos to remain inexpensive? While visiting Tacos Tamix last week, a diner sitting next to me thought that $3 a taco felt excessive. “It’s a basic thing,” he said. “Tacos are a tortilla with a little bit of meat on it.”
It’s a bit more nuanced than that. Though the core ingredients might seem to be simple, the skill and labor behind making tacos are crucial, including preparing salsas, chopping vegetables, marinating meats, and paying people a living wage in SoCal’s very saturated taco market. Just because the cost is low, it doesn’t mean the quality is.
The late Anthony Bourdain noted the unfair perception of Mexican food in America. In a 2016 Reddit AMA, Bourdain said, “This is frankly a racist assumption that Mexican food or Indian food should be cheap. That’s not right.”
So the size of tacos has noticeably shrunk at some LA taco trucks. This likely means that taco lovers will have to order more — and pay more — so these operators can stay in business. And that’s a good thing.